The E-Brarian Revolution: Collapse of Traditional Libraries and the Dawn of the New E-Empire

The future of libraries is a burning question, and sessions on it occur at conferences with great regularity.  The E-Brarian Revolution panel looked at the following questions, and offered some fascinating observations:

  • How will technology affect the future of librarians, publishers, and their offerings?
  • Will print collections be completely replaced by electronic ones in the next 20 years?
  • Will librarians as we know them no longer exist?
  • How will patrons and students use libraries dependent entirely on electronic resources?
  • What does the road to entirely digital look like, and what are publishers doing to set the pace?

Mehdi Khosrow-Pour, CEO of IGI-Global, moderated the panel and thinks that printed books will always be available because smaller libraries still cannot afford databases, people like the library experience, and it is impossible to replace serendipity possible with physical browsing.  He presented the results of a survey of 627 students on US campuses, in which 76% of them said they would pick up a printed book if it were available to them.  Mirela Roncevic, Editor of Advances in Library and Information Science, offered more data to support this, noting that we continue to talk about standardizing content formats, content may be born digital but not globally available, and there are still many old business models reinforcing inefficient practices.

Lynn Connaway, Research Scientist at OCLC, reported on one of her fascinating studies and said that libraries must build services around user workflows and provide seamless access to both printed and digital materials.  She thinks that librarians will become responsible for digitization, preservation and archiving of resources as well as educating users on their information needs.  At present, users spend little time using content and tend to download much of it for printing and reading later.   If we focus on the user, many of our problems will be solved.

Rick Anderson is haunted by the iPod.  It destroyed the music industry and is revolutionizing the communication industry because it became the iPhone.    In the 1990s, the information industry similarly did not anticipate what the web would do to scholarship.  We need to ask ourselves what is happening now that will radically redirect our industry.  What will we mean when we say “library”?  It won’t be a building full of books, but could become a collaborative research space or a central repository of scholarship and local collections.  Large databases of information are becoming available, and we risk being taken by surprise if we don’t pay attention to Google Books and Hathi Trust.

The library building will still be very important in the future.  Gate counts continue to rise because people love the library space.  They love to be able to work in groups.  For example, Anderson has observed at his University of Utah library that students like to study in groups and will often rearrange the furniture to accommodate their habits.  He said that no librarian should ever say “Shhh” to students; demand for space for collaboration has far surpassed that for quiet study.  (If they need a quiet space, it can be provided.)  He also said that the biggest competition is the student union.

One of the fastest growing sectors in the information marketplace is e-books and digital content, according to Kevin Sayer, president of ebrary. We are competing for students’ attention with the resources available on the web, primarily Google.  They are spending more and more of their time online.  They know that they have digital resources available to them, even if they don’t use them.   Librarians therefore need to cost-effectively and efficiently acquire the information students need, improve discoverability to help them find it, and manage large amounts of data from multiple platforms and vendors.  Publishers can help by offering electronic access simultaneously with the print (some already do this and even make the electronic version accessible ahead of the print), provide flexible pricing models to meet library budgets, and leverage new technologies for information distribution and delivery.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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